Bacardi recently announced that it will pack its products in a new compostable bottle starting in 2023 – part of the brand’s long-term goal of being completely plastic-free by 2030. The bottle is made from PHA, a 100% compostable biopolymer that is made using natural seed oils instead of petroleum and naturally biodegrades in 18 months.

While the liquor brand calls this innovation a “silver bullet” for the plastic pollution problem, experts have urged caution. According to experts, PHA represents an exciting technological advancement in biodegradable packaging, but it also requires composting infrastructure that is not yet widely available. And if consumers do not fully understand the difference between these different plastics and how to dispose of them, it can contaminate the recycling facilities.

The new bottle will replace the 80 million plastic bottles – 3,000 tons of plastic – that Bacardi produces each year in its brand portfolio. To develop this solution, the spirits company has teamed up with the biotech company Danimer Scientific. The resulting Nodax PHA biopolymer biodegrades in 18 months in compost, soil, freshwater or seawater – a significant improvement over the roughly 400 years it took for petroleum-based plastics to decompose.

“In our 158-year history, Bacardi has always believed in respecting the world’s natural resources and acting responsibly, from sourcing our sugar cane sustainably to the water and energy used to make our rum,” said Ned Duggan , SVP from Bacardi. “We are now excited to be pioneering this new biopolymer technology for the benefit of all Bacardi brands and the entire spirits industry.”

Bacardi isn’t the only CPG company looking to incorporate PHA into its packaging. PepsiCo is working on a biodegradable plastic chip bag, and Nestlé has a PHA water bottle in the works.

However, a large-scale move from a highly recyclable petroleum-based plastic to a biodegradable PHA biopolymer requires extensive access to composting infrastructure and clear consumer messaging, said Bridget Croke of Closed Loop Partners, a sustainability-focused investment firm. While PHA is a “material of great promise,” said Croke, “the question is, what is the appropriate use case?”

According to a 2019 report by the US PIRG Education Fund, only 326 cities out of more than 19,000 across the country have a roadside compost pickup. Unless those efforts are ramped up significantly over the next two years, flooding the system with biodegradable plastics from 2023 could act as a “filler” rather than add nutrients to the compost, Croke said. PHA bottles also run the risk of ending up in the trash along with conventional plastics, where they can contaminate an otherwise highly recyclable batch of material.

For companies looking to switch to compostable materials, Croke hopes they are “willing to invest in infrastructure to actually reclaim this material, as it is far more nascent than infrastructure recycling”.

With heavy investments in educational news, composting infrastructure, and a trend towards more household composting systems, PHA offers the opportunity to reduce the pollution caused by single-use plastics in the CPG industry without actually sacrificing plastic.

Nodax PHA “delivers the biodegradability consumers demand without losing the sense of quality they get from traditional plastic,” said Scott Tuten, Danimer Scientific’s chief marketing and sustainability officer, in a statement. “The material offers the best of both worlds.”

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